Web Design By Donor Organizations For Low BandwidthJuly 27, 2009
There is an issue in the donor world that really bugs me. It has bugged me since 2004, when I was sitting in a small NGO in Ukraine that had a poor internet connection, and I found myself really struggling to find grant information that could help these people-this was largely attributable to web design that, instead of making it easy to find information, actually made it harder.
This issue bugged me enough that I finally finally did something about it. I was in Anne Nelson’s New Media and Development Communication course at SIPA, and capitalized on the opportunity to research this issue, put together a lot of my own thinking and experiences to create a list of recommendations and “how-tos”, and publish “Web Design By Donor Organizations For Low Bandwidth” on our wiki detailing a wide range of projects/findings/conclusions on real world new media and development projects.
I am certainly not alone in this frustration. In fact, I was talking to a fellow media developer who had a similar story. “I remember waiting many many minutes in ethiopia for silly pages to load that were just too heavy and finallly giving up,” he said.
Of course, I know why this happens, why donors and development organizations that are at least one step removed from “the field” sometimes build websites that are treacherous to access in developing countries. One, they don’t really know anything about web design, and create a terrible site. Or, two, they just don’t take a consumer-driven approach, and think more about how they would like to site to work rather than consulting their target audience to maximize usability. Or, three, their target audience is other donors and/or “non-field” development organizations, and thus they have some standard of what is “professional” they must follow in order to come off as a respectable donor or “non-field” development organization.
I definitely get the concern of wanting to look professional with all of this stuff. For me, I personally think usability is moreimportant, which I wrote about in that wiki project. My basic argument is that donors should concern themselves more with whether or not their websites are usable than whether or not they have a look that is focused more on what has been traditionally considered professional. Traditionally, the sites that people create to appeal to donors create great difficulties for people in developing countries in low bandwidth situations (read: most of the developing world) to view their websites.
Personally, my approach is to try to create sites that make it possible for these people to view them. One, it will make it easier for them to find available grants (if you have them), and two these people will be able to benefit from the example of the projects of your organization. I try in all of my work to present the best example for all audiences who could benefit, even if one of them isn’t my target. So, if my target audience is donors, I would still want a site that maximizes recipient audiences’ ability to view and benefit from them. After all, they need all the help they can get.
In short, I am trying to say to donors, “I understand you want a certain look and feel to be impressed and take an organization seriously. But, your main purpose is to help the people who are the ultimate recipients of your aid. Here are areas where you might want to give in a little in order to create websites that will maximize the benefit of what you are trying to do in the world, and perhaps more importantly, minimize the barriers your site creates. There are already plenty of barriers in the way of information. My recommendation is not to be one more.”
Otherwise, in my experience, donors just end up creating a divide between organizations in big cities with internet connections good enough to be able to access donor information and perhaps enough money to spend on a great webpage, and organizations out in the smaller towns that are much closer to “the field” that have very limited resources, and don’t have the bandwidth to avoid spending all day trying to view a couple of websites they desperately need the assistance of.
Certainly, there are different audiences for different types of organizations in the development chain, and each has its own type of site it should build.
I’m just trying to be a force to help pull the pendulum back into smart web design that will prove the most helpful where help is needed the most.